What are you currently working on and what inspired you to start writing it?
I have just finished a novel set in Malta in 1930. I wrote a novel a couple of years ago set in Borneo in the 1920s but I couldn’t really get it to work. I realized the problem was that I was, in fact, writing two different books, one about a man coming to terms with his wife’s death and a straightforward adventure story. There was too much of a mismatch. I already had the idea for a story set in Malta in the interwar years.
Most British people have a cosy idea of the relationship between the two counties based on the legends of the Second World War and the presence of red telephone boxes in the streets of Valletta. The reality was that in the interwar years many Maltese regarded Britain as an occupying power. At the same time Mussolini’s Italy had plans to expand into the Mediterranean, so I had the kernel of a story for an espionage thriller. I decided to split up the Borneo novel and cannibalized the first part for the Malta book. Hopefully, it works. This does mean I have the second half of an adventure novel set in Borneo so if anyone out there has the first half of a similar book I’m up for a bit of collaboration!
Where and when does the action take place?
Just the three of us starts in England in 1930. I have always been fascinated with the interwar years. It was a time of huge social and technological change where it was possible to fly the Atlantic while at the same time much of the world was little changed since feudal times. It was also a period of clashing ideologies and huge political upheaval. Plus, the clothes were cool.
The main protagonist decides to start a new life in Malta following his wife’s death, hoping to find some peace. Fat chance. He becomes embroiled in a plot to assassinate the Maltese prime Minister and de-stabilize British rule. The usual concomitant mayhem ensues, but it all ends happily. Sort of.
How long have you been working on it?
I already had part of the book when I began so I had a head start but it took me about 18 months to pull everything together.
What were some of the best and some of the most challenging parts so far?
Most of the pieces I have written up to now have been historical thrillers. I wanted to make this a love story as well, which is beyond my comfort zone. I emerged from the process with a new respect for the writers of romance fiction. Boy, getting this stuff down without descending to hackneyed drivel is HARD.
And where are you at now?
An agent asked for a full, liked it but thought it would be hard to market as a thriller, given that it didn’t quite fit into what was expected of the genre. So I’ve given it a new title (from An unofficial spy) and will rebrand it as a historical romance thriller. I’ll need to rejig a couple of chapters and write another and then, hopefully, ready to go again.
How did the BWC help you in the course of your work? What was the best feedback you got from the group?
The previous longer pieces of work I have presented at the BWC were, although I had an overall vision, done chapter by chapter. This time I had a reasonably complete draft to begin with. The problem with this approach is that you can’t always see the trees for the wood. Seeing it through other people’s eyes makes clearer what needs pruning, what needs uprooting and where new seeds could be planted.
Without the insights of the people at the BWC that would have been a much harder, and less successful task. Everyone is supportive, but more importantly, honest. It’s not always easy being told the chapter you’ve laboured over for weeks is not up to standard but this is the sort of thing you need to hear if you’re serious about producing your best work. You need to take any criticism in the spirit it is meant. And of course, if you come up with something that’s not total gibberish it’s nice to hear that from someone else, it gives you the motivation to keep on.
Who will (the final version of) your novel definitely not be suitable for?
Well, it isn’t exactly A brief history of time, but apart from that….
We assume that it will one day be published to universal acclaim and that a Hollywood blockbuster will be made from it. Which actors will play the principal roles?
The world I have tried to create is not a glamorous one, so not really ‘A’ lister material. So sorry, Johnny Depp, don’t bother to apply. Matthew Macfadyen would be perfect for Jack Gibson, as would Toby Jones for Woodland. Minnie Driver would make a good Flavia. She has such a mobile face. And Cillian Murphy for Smith.